With $1.50-a-litre gasoline looming, the perception of high performance is susceptible to change with every fill-up.
Consider the following moment in the evolution: Eastbound on the 401, a hurtling Ford F-150 filled the rearview mirror of our Chevrolet Cruze Eco, having veered into our middle lane to escape the congested passing lane - then almost immediately charged into the lane to our right, pedal-to-the-metal, V-8 bellowing - accelerating into the distance.
The fellow wheeling the pickup was revelling in its power, no question. In his mind, performance and acceleration are surely forever entwined.
But the Cruze Eco's high performance was the more remarkable at the moment our paths intersected. With the cruise control set at 100 km/h, we were consuming 4.9 litres/100 km according to the instrument panel readout. The pickup? Perhaps 24 litres/100 km during its burst of "performance."
This new model in the Chevrolet Cruze line boasts the country's best highway consumption rating of 4.6 litres/100 km (according to the Natural Resources Canada laboratory test method) among all gasoline-powered, non-hybrid automobiles. The diesel-equipped Volkswagen Golf, it should be noted, matches it - and betters it in city driving.
Was it only last year that the SS model of the Cruze's predecessor, the Cobalt, was heavily marketed in the manner of countless road rage coupes before it, pumping more horsepower, sucking more gas and styled for fast young tastes? There is no Cruze SS and the Eco is conservatively styled. It is, however, lighter than other Cruzes, lower, more aerodynamically efficient and rolls on high-efficiency tires.
GM Canada isn't entirely sure how customers will take to it. "We planned on a 10 per cent uptake rate," Paul Hewitt, product manager for Cruze, allowed during this media introduction, "but at the time we did our planning, gasoline was a dollar a litre, so we're not sure."
Understand that the most economical Eco is not going to be to the taste of most Cruze buyers, let alone pickup pilots with NASCAR passing manners. A manual transmission is a key ingredient in this high-efficiency car's achieving 4.6 litres/100 km - and fully 80 per cent of Cruze customers buy automatics. The Eco is available with an automatic, but with it the fuel consumption rating climbs to 5.1 litres/100 km.
We drove both automatic and manual Ecos. First, for the drive from Courtesy Chevrolet at the Queensway and 427, then following the 401 to Cobourg, was the manual. Determined to come as close as possible to matching Canada's top rating, I shifted through the gears at the bidding of an indicator light that kept engine speeds low.
Acceleration was slow with this style of driving, naturally, because we were sipping fuel as delicately as a lady might sip her cup of tea. Fortunately, traffic was uncommonly civilized, moving along without the usual slowdowns that require braking and subsequent acceleration. It's just as well that we never needed to speed up in a hurry because fourth, fifth and sixth gears are all overdrive, i.e., intended primarily for cruising, not for gaining speed rapidly.
We didn't hold up anyone, staying out of the passing lane as we did. We were cruising at 100 km/h and the consumption readout was indicating 4.9 litres/100 km when the F-150 flew by just east of Toronto.
But Canadian flags were snapping straight from their poles attesting to a strong head-wind. Average consumption eventually crept up to 5.0. By the turn-around at Cobourg, after 121 km of driving, consumption was 5.1. Equalling the official ratings in real-life driving simply never happens in our experience: this is as close as I've come, and it'd have been closer without the wind.
Higher speeds increase consumption too. With the cruise control set at 120 km/h, we averaged 5.7 litres/100 km - with the wind at our back.
The Eco automatic simply isn't as eco. Its highway rating is 5.1 litres/100 km, a full half litre more per 100 km. In our driving - not directly comparable to that in the manual car, involving as it did country roads rather than the 401 - we averaged 6.3 litres/100 km.
For perspective, consider other cars known for their fuel-efficiency. The new 2012 Honda Civic's highway rating is 5.0. The Smart two-seater, 4.8. A regular Cruze is 5.5.
Among hybrids with their higher prices, the latest Civic Hybrid boasts 4.2, Toyota Prius 4.0, whereas Honda Intrepid only matches the Cruze Eco at 4.6. Hybrid models' real superiority, of course, is in city-area driving.
A direct competitor, Ford's Focus SFE, is rated at 4.8 - with an automatic transmission as Ford doesn't offer a manual with its fuel-efficiency model. Ford, then, can boast the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid, gasoline-powered automatic four-seater, while Chevrolet can claim overall leadership.
The horsepower wars between the blue-oval and bow-tie brigades, as Ford and Chevy were known by their respective enthusiasts, is the stuff of automotive history, and continues with Mustangs and Camaros. Now change is upon us and a different form of high performance emerges. Imagine the look on that pickup driver's face filling up his big honking monster and you begin to understand why.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
Type: Four-door sedan
Base Price: $19,495
Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.2 city/4.6 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Focus SFE, Volkswagen Golf TDI, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra